Refutation of the Doctrine of Death in the morality play, Everyman

Ok, so this is the research paper I had to write for my English class. If you are interested, enjoy!


The play, “Everyman,” answers several questions regarding spiritual life and death. The most obvious being, to quote the Philippian jailor; “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30 ESV). However, there was also an answer given to the purpose of death, and this is the subject being addressed here. Now, “Everyman” addresses two vantage points of death, namely, God’s purpose in the death of His creation, and Everyman’s eternal plight. The author’s view on both physical and spiritual death can be summarized in a simple sentence. The majority of the play is about Everyman having been called upon to give an account of his life. All those who claimed his friendship had abandoned him by the time he went to his grave and only Good Deeds accompanied him before the judgement throne of God. Therefore, the author portrays Death in two ways: first as God’s servant who does His binding and second as merely the instrument through which God requires “a reckoning of every man’s person,” (Adu-Gyamfi et al. 2011, 265-87) though judgement may be escaped on account of one’s good works.

When Death is first seen in “Everyman,” it is summoned by God to bring people to the judgement throne; “That needs on them I must do justice, on every man living without fear” (Adu-Gyamfi et al. 2011, 265-87). Now the author’s perception of the doctrine regarding eternal damnation or salvation is counter-Biblical. In fact, it is not only counter-Biblical, but heretical. In his article “Doctrine and Dramatic Structure in Everyman,” Lawrence V. Ryan claims “that the theology involved is indispensable, not indefensible” (Ryan 1957, 722-35). This article will seek to show the theology in “Everyman” to be indefensible compared with what is revealed concerning death in God’s Word.

Ryan shows how “Everyman” reflects orthodox theology by comparing what God says in the play with Scriptures addressing similar but different issues. In order to understand the author’s view of death, it requires us to look at the entire play and the theology revealed therein. Only then may one truly understand where the author comes from and what he believes.


Doctrine of Death Examined as Seen in “Everyman”

Through God speaking does the author begin to unfold the doctrine contained within this play. The first revelation concerns one’s view of God. There are two overriding conceptions concerning God’s character or lack thereof that influence this play. First is the holiness of God, and second the sovereignty of God, for God’s holiness is what requires payment for sin, and God’s sovereignty which saves man from sin.  God is limited in salvific power, and thus sovereignty, for God said, “I could do no more than I did, truly.” Yet more clearly may this be seen as the emphasis of the following line lies on the people; “And now I see the people do clean forsake me.” Therefore, the author clearly believes man is partially and primarily responsible for their own salvation. One theological aspect that cannot be determined exclusively from the play, namely, the doctrine of the Fall. The messenger does not clearly address this in it’s introduction. What does it matter? The Fall is related to the protestant doctrine of man, so lacking mention to the Fall implies a “good enough” doctrine of man. A “good enough” doctrine of man forms the basis for believing man to be inherently good, whereas the protestant doctrine teaches the opposite.

The author of “Everyman” believes in and thus seeks to communicate universal salvation in this play. Ryan, seeing this, said in his article, “Redemption was intended for all” (Ryan 1957). This he showed is proven by God’s statement,

I hoped well that every man

In my glory should make his mansion

And thereto I had them all elect    (II. 52-54).

This reinforces the idea of God’s universal plan for salvation. This further shows God’s inadequacy to actually save because His salvific plan and desire is tied to the will of man.

Good Deeds was the only companion of Everyman that went with him before God to give his life’s reckoning. The author expressed this belief in salvation from death through one’s good deeds by the Doctor at the end of the play. Based on the whole of the play, the author’s view of death as reflected in this work seems to be one of disbelief in an actual eternal death.  This is evident by the state of Good Deeds when Everyman finds her and Doctor’s remarks as the play ends. His good deeds have been so few throughout his life that Good Deeds could not even stand up. The character Doctor at the end of the play also proves this by sayings, “But beware, for if they (good works) be small before God, he hath no help at all.” Therefore, we can safely conclude that the author believes in physical death, but not at all in spiritual death.


Doctrine of Death According to God’s Word

The view given of God in the Holy Scriptures is much different than what we see in “Everyman.” The Bible begins by saying, “In the beginning, God created…” (Gen. 1:1). Thus, God starts His book by making known that He is the all powerful Creator of the universe. In Leviticus chapter eleven God commands His people to “be holy, for I am holy” (v. 44). Solomon proclaims that God will punish the “evil person” and the “false witness” (Prov. 11:21; 19:5) Paul, in his letter to the church at Ephesus, describes God as one “who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). The Greek word ένεργουντος translated here as “works” carries a continuous sense. What this means is that the working of all things is a continuous, ongoing, never ending work. So God is portrayed as sovereign over all that He has made, down to the finest detail, and throughout all time. Peter says God will “judge the living and the dead” (1 Pet. 4:5). These are but a few verses in God’s Word that shows both His holiness and His sovereignty. Therefore, it is abundantly clear that God is holy not letting wickedness slip by Him, and that He is sovereign over all things to the point that He is the one working them how he sees fit.

The salvation message found in God’s Word is one of limited atonement. God has always worked covenantally and generationally with His people (Gen. 17:7; Romans 9). Working in this way means that God has always chosen a select people to be His. Jesus said in the Gospel of John, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (6:44). To further stress that God alone is responsible for a person’s salvation, Paul said to the Church in Rome, “It depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy” (Rom. 9:16). Later on, Paul also points out that some people were created for salvation and others for destruction. Therefore, Scripture is clear that God does not, and will not, save every man who has ever been or will be.

Death, be it physical or spiritual, is inevitable. The author of Hebrews makes this clear by saying, “It is appointed for man to die once, ,and after that comes judgment” (9:27). Paul says God “will render to each one according to his works” (Rom. 2:6), this does not mean that man will be rescued from death because of good works, for salvation comes only through God’s mercy and grace (Titus 3:5; Eph. 2:5,8). Paul states rather emphatically that salvation is “not a result of works” and then again in his letter to Titus, “not by works done by us in righteousness” (Eph. 2:9; Titus 3:5). Not only do these verses show that salvation is the work of God, but they also refute the idea that one can come to God based on their works. Fifteenth century preacher Martin Luther said, “There are no good works except those which God has commanded, even as there is no sin except that which God has forbidden” (Luther 2009, 21). Therefore, Scripture clearly teaches since one is not saved by their works, likewise, one cannot escape death by works.

In “Everyman,” death is portrayed solely as a threat used by God to get His creation to be kind to Him and ultimately straighten his life out. However, contrary to Ryan’s claim that “Everyman” offers “orthodox teaching on the matter of man’s salvation,” this play does not present orthodox teaching on salvation, but rather heresy concerning both salvation and death, since salvation is from death. Louis Berkhof describes eternal death as “the full weight of the wrath of God descending on the condemned.” This is perfectly in line with Scripture, because Paul says in Romans that “the wages of sin is death” (6:23). Thus if God was to not judge one who had lived in rebellion to God all his life, as it seems Everyman had, He would not be the holy God that He called Himself in the Old Testament. John Calvin once said, “We are all so blinded and fascinated with self-love that every one imagines he has a just right to exalt himself” (Calvin 1921, 622). This is evident when one attempts to justify themselves on the basis of their “righteous deeds” (Isa. 64:6). Therefore, to say that man may escape death because of their good deeds is to water down God’s sovereignty and to deny what Scripture teaches regarding death.




Adu-Gyamfi, Yaw, and Mark Ray Schmidt. Literature and Spirituality. Boston: Pearson, 2011.

(accessed June 29, 2012).


The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001.


Ryan, Lawrence V. “Doctrine and Dramatic Structure in Everyman.” Speculum 32 No. 4 (1957), (accessed June 29, 2012).


Lloyd-Jones, David Martyn. The Church and the Last Things. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books



Luther, Martin. A Treatise of Good Works. Rockville, Maryland: Serenity Publishers, LLC, 2009.


Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication

and Sabbath-School Work, 1921.


Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K: William B.

Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996


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